The Signal/Noise Ratio in US North Korea Policy

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Americans have under-estimated the nuclear threat from North Korea and misunderstood what policies would reduce it.  At the same time they have over-estimated the importance of bilateral trade deficits with China and misunderstood what policies would reduce them.  Now these two different issues intersect.

My preceding post discussed the Chinese trade aspect of the problem.  Here I review the geo-politics and history of the North Korea nuclear problem.

US policy has been to demand that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear weapons program as a precondition for talks.  This is no longer realistic, given the advanced state of the nuclear program and the North Koreans’ conviction that it is the guarantor of their security.   American politicians can proclaim all they want that a nuclear North Korea is “unacceptable.”   A freeze in the nuclear weapons program is the most that we could hope for in the medium run, and achieving even that will not be easy.  There are not many good options.

Some will say that a freeze is not a sufficiently ambitious goal, even in the short run.  But the time is past when an enforceable agreement to stop short of nuclear capability is a possibility, as it might have been in 2000 and 2001.  The lessons of that period have been widely misunderstood.  The Agreed Framework of 1994 had been an important achievement: a solution to the crisis created when North Korea departed from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty in 1993.  The Framework avoided a war that came closer than most people were aware.  As a result of the Agreed Framework, the North Koreans slowed their nuclear program to a crawl. They froze plutonium production in the Yongbyon complex for eight years (1994-2002), as they had explicitly promised to do in the most important part of the deal.

It is true that they failed to live up to some other important aspects of the agreement, as so often in the past. But the US did not live up to its side of the agreement either.  The important point is that the Framework was better than the alternative. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, discontinued negotiations, and ripped it up in 2002, the North Koreans immediately responded in the way that they had said they would: they restarted their frozen plutonium facilities and within four years were able to test their first nuclear bomb.  A nuclear North Korea has been a fact of life since that time.

Incidentally, the episode illustrates why we should stick with the Iran nuclear agreement, considering the alternative.  This is the opposite of the lesson that many have drawn from the Korean precedent.

So what is to be done about North Korea now?  My preceding post acknowledged that it is probably true that heightened economic sanctions by China on its troublesome ally, such as a cut-off of oil supplies which could cripple the North Korean economy, would be the best hope of getting Kim Jung-un to agree to suspend his nuclear program in return for certain security assurances from the US.   The question then is: how can the US persuade China to take stronger steps?

Start by considering the problem from China’s viewpoint, as any deal-maker should do.  It doesn’t want North Korea to have nuclear weapons.  But it fears even more the prospect of a breakdown of order in its next-door neighbor, with volatile consequences, including both the possibilities of waves of refugees and intervention by US troops.  The US and Korean governments should be prepared to promise that if China applies strong enough economic sanctions to bring the North to its knees, the ultimate outcome will be neither US troops north of the 38th parallel nor a unified Korea with nuclear weapons.  The US and South Korea should also be prepared to pause the deployment of THAAD (the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system) as a short-term gesture in return for China enacting and enforcing full sanctions.

It would take credibility on the part of the US president to make this strategy work — or to make any strategy work.  Unfortunately credibility is something of which President Trump has very little.   His signals are mostly noise.

To be fair, his predecessors also exhibited a disturbingly low correlation between verbal warnings to foreign adversaries and willingness to take action.  So often in the post-war period, American presidents have made threats that they weren’t prepared to carry out and − equally − have carried out interventions that they had neglected to signal in advance.  A classic example of the latter mistake was the 1950 speech by Secretary of State Dean Acheson defining an American “defensive perimeter” in the Pacific that excluded Korea, which is said to have encouraged the North to invade the South soon thereafter.

Among many examples of the former mistake — talking loudly and carrying a small stick — is Ronald Reagan’s decision to maintain a Marine force in Lebanon, even after the rationale for their presence had vanished.  A suicide bombing in 1983 killed 241. The President said that if the United States were to withdraw, “we’ll be sending one signal to terrorists everywhere: They can gain by waging war against innocent people….”  Three days later he withdrew.  Terrorists indeed saw the signal.  The point isn’t that he shouldn’t have withdrawn.  The point is that those leaders who proclaim a military commitment under a rationale of maintaining US credibility often fail to take into account how much greater will be the loss of credibility if they are forced to back down later.  Vietnam is of course the biggest example of this lesson.

But the noise/signal ratio is extraordinarily high now.  Foreign leaders, like most American citizens, have come to realize that Trump’s statements — whether about the past, present or future — are all but uncorrelated with reality.  Consider just two examples from the Korean nuclear issue.  In January he tweeted, “It won’t happen!” in reference to North Korean aims to develop a nuclear weapon capable of reaching parts of the US.  On August 11 he said that if Kim Jong-un “utters one threat in a form of an overt threat — which, by the way, he has been uttering for years, and his family has been uttering for years — … he will truly regret it. And he will regret it fast.”  One need not wait to find out: It is already clear that these two statements were not credible or accurate.  For good measure, he then threatened military action against Venezuela.

It would not be surprising if China’s leaders have concluded that in the US President they have finally encountered a leader whose words are even less credible than those of Kim Jong-un.

[This post continues a first installment.  An earlier version combining the two appeared at Project Syndicate.  Comments can be posted there or at Econbrowser.]

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